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Thursday, September 2, 2010

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Déjà vu for Mule football?

Stop if you’ve heard this before:

After a run of Centennial Conference championships, the Muhlenberg football team slipped to 3-7 and won only two CC games last year.

Despite a nationally ranked defense, the Mules struggled offensively, scoring in double digits in only six of 10 games. Instability under center was one of the main culprits, as the team tried several quarterbacks before settling on a freshman.

That’s a summary of the 2009 season – and, ironically, the 2005 season as well.
Mark Accomando
Accomando led the Mules with four pass breakups last season.

The veterans on the 2010 Muhlenberg team may find themselves in an unfamiliar position, but the program has been there very recently, and it bounced back well. The Mules improved to 5-5 in 2006, then stormed to back-to-back CC championships in 2007 and 2008.

Of course, history won’t repeat itself just because it would make a nice story. To improve their record, let alone get back to championship level, the Mules have plenty of hard work ahead.

“You learn a lot when you have a bad season and we know we definitely don’t want to feel that way again,” senior offensive lineman Lou Greco said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

A positive byproduct of Muhlenberg’s difficulties last year was that a number of young players gained varsity experience. Eighteen of the team’s 33 returning letterwinners earned their first varsity letter in 2009 and return for this campaign prepared to contribute.

The Mules return seven offensive starters, led by sophomore quarterback Dan Deighan . Deighan started the last four games of his rookie season, completed more than 50 percent of his passes and rushed for 111 yards.
Bobby Bushong
Bushong earned three Big Hit awards last season for hs blocks against Union, Ursinus and Moravian.

The effectiveness of the offense will depend largely on the offensive line, which should be sparked by the return of senior Mark Bigelli, a second-team All-CC selection as a sophomore who missed all but one game in 2009 with an injury. Juniors Phil Musick and Michael Porembski return at tackle and center, respectively, while Greco, fellow senior John Allen and sophomore Garrett Bisbing will compete for the remaining starting slots.

“We get along really well and have a good group of guys that work hard every day,” Greco said of the offense. “We don’t accept anything less than our best and we’re ready to get out there.”

At running back, Muhlenberg returns a pair of players who showed ability in their rookie campaigns as Mules. Terrence Dandridge led the team with 505 rushing yards, the most by a Mule freshman since 2000, while junior transfer J.T. Merklinger added 221 yards in six games last fall.

The top returning pass catcher is junior Steve Liparini (28 catches, 2 TDs), who leads a deep tight end corps, while senior Bobby Bushong (23 career receptions) is the most experienced wide receiver.

“The offense had a great preseason and they have a lot of good leaders,” senior captain Mark Accomando said. “I see a lot more experience this season and the guys are playing more relaxed and trying to go out there to make plays instead of worrying about making a mistake.”

Defensively the Mules ranked in the top 25 in Division III in total defense (13th), scoring defense (19th) and rushing defense (21st) in 2009, and figure to be tough once again.
Lou Greco
Greco started nine games last fall.

An outstanding linebacker corps, led by captains Patrick McDonough and Scott Gavin on the inside, headlines the group. McDonough earned a spot on the All-CC first team last season after making a team-leading 80 tackles, while Gavin, an All-CC choice in 2008, enters his final season with 97 career tackles. Andy Curley had a breakthrough junior year at outside linebacker with nine tackles for loss and six sacks en route to earning All-CC honorable mention. Accomando offers the versatility to stop the run or drop back coverage at the other outside spot.

The defensive backfield returns a lot of depth, starting with juniors Chris Hartzell (cornerback) and Kevin Ryan (free safety), who tied for the team lead with three interceptions apiece in 2009.

Junior Chase Nadell played mostly in the nickel last year but still received All-CC honorable mention and Jared Holenda, who started at rover in 2008 but missed all of last year with an injury, returns to bolster the defense.

The defensive line will have a different look after graduating all three starters, but if the Mules can find a consistent rotation up front, the defense should prove to be stout once again.

“We’re going to be dominant,” Accomando said of the defense. “Our line is young, but we’ve got some good guys there and we’ve got a lot of talent on defense. We’re going to be good.”

Second-team All-CC punter Jason LoPipero and 2008 second-team kicker Michael Katz return to lead the special teams. And in the return game, Dandridge, Merklinger and Nadell combined to average 22.8 yards on kickoff returns, while junior Steve Nissley ranked 48th in Division III by averaging 9.4 yards on punt returns.

Whether history repeats itself remains to be seen, but with a host of experienced returners, the Mules have had one goal in mind since the start of camp. And Greco summed it up with one simple yet definitive statement.

“We are ready to go out there and show everybody that we’re back,” he said.

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